Road trip through Kinnaur and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh

NH22, the old Hindustan-Tibet road.

It takes certain amount of madness to do this – three girls set off on a 9-day road trip through East Himachal, covering more than 1000 km through unfamiliar terrain, and driving on a highway that’s billed as one of the ‘world’s deadliest roads’. In certain stretches NH22 (the old Hindustan-Tibet Road) is terrible, but what makes up for this is the gorgeous landscape that changes as one drives through the lush mountains of Kinnaur Valley and crosses into the rugged moonscape of Spiti with just a few villages in between. It just takes one thing to get going for this trip – passion for travelling – and we have that in abundance.

Day 1: Chandigarh to Narkanda
Distance: 171km
Time taken: 7 hours
We hire a 4×4 vehicle which is essential for the bad roads that we are going to encounter. We leave from Chandigarh around noon and take the 10km Parwanoo bypass which cuts our journey time considerably. We stop for a bite at the famous Giana da Dhaba in Dharampur on NH22, which has been around since 1976. From piping hot paranthas, dal makhani, a variety of vegetables to delicious tea, you get everything here. After crossing Solan, Shoghi, Shimla (luckily we did not have to enter it), Theog we finally reach Narkanda. This tiny hamlet, 8884 feet high, has splendid towering trees and is famous for ski slopes, apple orchards and the Hatu Peak. We spend the evening roaming around the market and have dinner at New Himalayan Dhaba, a decent eatery with good food and generous helpings.

Bhimakali Temple
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Day 2: Narkanda to Sarahan
Distance: 90km
Time taken: 4 hours
A steep 8km drive through thick pine forests takes us to Hatu peak, 11,152 feet high, and we get a clear view of the Himalayas. There is a lovely wooden temple also. After that we are on our way to Sarahan, a pretty hamlet in Kinnaur Valley. The roads are still in a good condition. Though it’s beautiful, this place can easily be avoided and one can head straight to Sangla. The only thing that stands out here is the famous Bhimakali Temple, made of stone and wood. It’s built with layers of stone and timber to protect it from earthquakes. We spend the evening sipping local wine in the only decent accommodation here – Himachal Tourism’s hotel Shirikhand.

Road to Sangla.
Image courtesy: Pallavi pasricha

Day 3: Sarahan to Sangla and Chitkul
Distance: 100km
Time taken: 6 hours
We leave Sarahan around 8am and reach Sangla after six hours. Due to a landslide we need take a detour which makes the route quite long as the roads are in a terrible condition. Sangla is a picturesque place, surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We make a quick stop for lunch and then head to Chitkul village, 28km ahead. The drive through the narrow road is spectacular, where our car crosses over streams and there are endless pastures and meadows below the lofty peaks and greenery all around. This charming village, the last one close to the Indo-Tibet border, has traditional Kinnauri-style wooden houses with slate roofs and small tea shops. We want to get back to Sangla before it is dark so we need to rush and barely get half an hour here. Upon reaching Sangla we walk till the market and dig into piping hot momos that simply melt in our mouth. We tuck in early as the next day is going be long.

Prayer flags on the way to Tabo.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Day 4: Sangla to Tabo
Distance: 190km
Time taken: 9 hours
This is a really long journey, but we are mentally geared up for it as we know that the roads are in a bad condition. But as I see the mountains change from green to craggy brown it makes up for it all. I’ve heard a lot about this, seen photographs, but the virtual world can never replace the real one, for when I’m face-to-face with these rugged, dramatic mountains, it leaves me speechless. At first they are rocky, but then later they became gentler. We stop at a small dhaba for lunch, close to Nako village. This sleepy place has a charming lake and a monastery as well. After a dekko, chatting with the villagers, we go to Tabo. What strikes you about this town is how stark it is – surrounded by rugged pinnacles.

Dhankar Monastery.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Day 5: Tabo to Kaza via Dhankar Monastery
Distance: 50km
Time taken: 2 hours
Tabo is famous for its monastery, which is more than 1000 years old. It’s unlike any other monastery I’ve ever seen – made of mud walls – and has a beautiful temple inside. This World Heritage Site is regarded as one of the holiest by Dalai Lama. Next in line is the 1200-year-old Dhankar monastery, on the way to Kaza. The monastery sits between many jagged peaks and has an amazing view of the Spiti River. But it is listed as one of the world’s 100 most endangered monuments. From its roof we get a bird’s-eye-view of the Dhankar village and the Pin and Spiti rivers. On our way to Kaza, the capital of Spiti, we pass many tiny villages, rocky mountains, vertical rocks and cliffs. This is the biggest town in the region with an old market, and new hotels. We reach by lunch and dig into delicious cheese momos at a tiny Chinese restaurant and divine cinnamon roll at the German Bakery. The market has shops selling Tibetan souvenirs and eateries.

Langcha village.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha.

Day 6: Kaza to Ki Monastery, Kibber, Langcha and Komic villages
Distance: 40km
Time taken: 2 hours
Much to our relief we are staying in Kaza today and travelling within the radius of just 40km. Ki Monastery, about 14km away, the largest one in Himachal, looks like a cluster of many white homes sitting atop a conical hill.  A monk very sweetly takes us around this 13th-century marvel. Kibber, Langcha and Komic villages, where we go next, seem like a sprinkling of whitewashed houses on a green and brown landscape – the meadows encircled by snow-capped peaks. Each village has a board mentioning the population and Kibber has just 200 people, while Langcha’s count is 148. Langcha is one of highest villages in Asia, located at the height of 13,943 feet and it has a huge Buddha statue and a temple. Komic village is 14,800 feet high and has just 114 people. Interestingly the population of Spiti is just 12,000 and that’s because the second son of every family has to become a monk, but this is not necessary when it’s a girl.

Spiti's rugged terrain.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Day 7: Kaza to Kalpa
Distance: 208km
Time taken: 10 hours
The sad part about our trip is that we have to re-track the entire way we came. Our initial plan is to via Kunzum Pass and Chander Taal to Manali and then to Chandigarh and finally Delhi. But due to bad weather Kunzum Pass is still shut and we have to come back all the way, hence we keep Kalpa for the last. We leave from Kaza at 6.30am and reach Reckong Peo, 9km short of Kalpa at about 4.00pm. Our journey would have been cut short by 1.5 hours if it wasn’t for that traffic jam on the way.

A local in Kalpa.
Image courtesy: Pallavi Pasricha

Day 8: Kalpa
Today is the last day before we make our way back to Delhi via Narkanda, so we decide to stay in this picturesque village and not venture anywhere. This is a much-needed break and Kalpa couldn’t have been a better place. From our hotel room we get gorgeous views of the Kinner Kailash massif. We spend the day lazying around, reading and going for walks.

Though grueling on the road, this is one of the most scenic trips of my life and I would want to do this again – but this time from Manali to Kunzum Pass and Chander Taal to complete that experience.


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AUTHOR'S BIO: Pallavi Pasricha is a commissioning editor at Lonely Planet India.

  • Sourav.C

    Hi I am planning a solo trip to Kinnaur and Kalpa at the end of this month..Early September to be precise. Can you recommend/ advise some of the safety measures to undertake while travelling on the mountainous terrain? Is it good to board a local bus?

    Btw, very informative article…I am tempted to go there now.

    • savitri

      if u plan to go by bus take only state transport buses , they are safest .though you may not get very good luxury buses. Best options are taking a mini deluxe that starts around 5:45 or 6 am from chandigarh and similar service from chandigarh at around 6 pm
      kinnaur is a friendly place so not much precautions required. better to travell light if going by bus rest will be fine.

    • Sharmilee

      Hi, I am also planning to travel solo to shilmla-mali circuit via kaza. But I skeptical abot pulic transport from kaza towards manali. Can you please tell me about same?

  • Shubham Mansingka

    Well written article. The pictures would have been much better if it was sunny. The vagaries of weather, we cant control.
    I have been on the Shimla-Kinnaur-Kaza–Kunzum La-Manali circuit twice in 4 years now and apparently learnt that the best views are from above. Villages higher from Kibber, like Gete and Tashigong are very pretty hiking at higher than 4500m. Getting to Chicham can scare the living daylights out of anybody.
    Sigh! Memories :)

  • Rene Kaur

    I never knew about this place until we visited it last year.. and it had been the best tour of my life!!

    Here’s 1 of the hyperlapse videos of our way to Spiti Valley for anyone who’s interested in visiting the place.. you’ll have an idea of the fun you gonna have travelling there 😀

  • A. Atluri

    Very informative and well written inspiring others to travel. We are 4 to 6 adults who are past 60 in age but are fit. We are well versed in driving and drove extensively in U.S., Canada and Europe. We drove through many national forests and mountains.
    We are inspired to drive in Himachal Pradesh. Is it possible to take the above trip in November or February or March? We do not like crowds and do not want to take the trip during peak holiday season. Another query! How is the accomadation in the above places? Being elderly we prefer comfort places to stay. Thank you.

    • Tanya Sirohi

      Hi, we’d like to recommend Best Escapes North India:
      This guide shall be able to answer any queries you have including those related to stay. That said, we’d like to also recommend that you speak with a few locals to get a pulse of the place (an option that has worked well for most in the past) :) We wish you the best for your journey. Stay smart. Stay safe. :)